The IRG suspends NGO participation again

13 October 2011, by Gillian Dell, Transparency International Secretariat.

The UNCAC Implementation Review Group held its resumed 2nd session at the UN in Vienna on 7–9 September 2011, with John Brandolino of the US as Chair. (The IRG oversees the UNCAC review process.) Once again civil society representatives had to remain outside in the hallway, despite an opinion issued by the UN Legal Office that they should be let in as observers. This situation was a topic of heated informal consultations among government delegations on the margins of the meeting. In the "informals" chaired by the Egyptian delegation, governments on the two sides of the issue too now-familiar positions on admission or exclusion of NGOs. UNCAC itself explicitly recognises in Article 13 and elsewhere that anti-corruption efforts must go hand-in-hand with transparency and civil society participation, but some governments continue to reject this notion.

Disputes over transparency and public participation in UNCAC fora have a long history. They surfaced already at sessions of the Conferences of States Parties and at the IRG's very first meeting back in June 2010 leading the IRG to consult the UN Legal Office. The resulting Legal Opinion in August 2010 found that NGOs could participate as observers at IRG plenary sessions under the same procedural rule (Rule 17) as applied to the sessions of the Conference of States Parties (COSP). This could only be overruled by a decision of the COSP.

Surprisingly, NGO observers were still not permitted to attend the following IRG meeting in November 2010. According to the Secretariat report on that meeting, the IRG had the understanding that “this decision would not set a precedent and that every effort would be made before and during the second session of the Group to explore appropriate and practical solutions for submission to and consideration by the Conference at its fourth session.”

But at the 2nd session of the IRG in June 2011 nothing had changed – NGO representatives were still barred from the meeting and there was no movement in positions. Then at the latest IRG meeting in September 2011, the Russian delegation reportedly circulated a discussion paper that called for NGOs to be invited only to a "special briefing and dialogue" on the final day of IRG meetings where they could ask questions, engage in dialogue with the co-chairs and provide comments in writing. This slim offer was rejected by those countries pushing for NGO participation in the spirit of UNCAC Article 13 and respecting CoSP Rule 17, the most vocal being several Western European countries. They were unwilling to sacrifice the principles of transparency, accountability and participation that are at the heart of the UNCAC. The issue will now be referred for a decision at the fourth session of the Conference of States Parties in Marrakesh, Morocco in October 2011.

What else happened at the meeting? There was a discussion of the fact that most countries under review were far exceeding the indicative timeline for the process -some reviews are taking over a year. The IRG also decided to continue its meeting during the upcoming 4th session of the CoSP in Marrakesh, in order to consider the thematic implementation reports on Chapters III and IV and possibly make recommendations to the Conference.

On the question of technical assistance, the IRG considered a UNODC report outlining a three-tier approach and an Argentine proposal on related issues. The budget for the Review Mechanism and IRG-related work was also a topic for discussion, with a proposed increase in funding from the regular budget for the coming year. This might be a controversial topic at the CoSP if some governments oppose increases or prefer to make voluntary contributions.

Ahead of the IRG meeting, UNODC had posted on their website the executive summaries of the reviews of Mongolia and Uganda, bringing to four the number of executive summaries that have been placed online. The other two, for Finland and Spain, were posted online in June. The Coalition is calling for governments to agree to online publication of the full review reports, as well as the focal points and review schedules, but this has yet to take place.